Friday, April 17, 2015

The Devil and Myron Bolitar

I started writing this piece earlier this week, during a very late night, with a huge smile on my face. I had just finished my marathon of Daredevil on Netflix and was reading the tremendous response the series had received, and was eager to share the joy and gratification I experienced watching my favorite comic series come to life beyond my greatest expectations. While reflecting on why I connected with Daredevil’s alter ego, Matt Murdock, throughout my years of devoted reading, I was suddenly struck by a revelation that another character I bore an uncanny resemblance to the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen.

Harlan Coben introduced me to the modern mystery genre in high school, and I count his writing, along with Dave Barry and Isaac Asimov, as a blueprint for engaging an audience. His signature character, Myron Bolitar, has headlined ten best-sellers, with the series also winning multiple prestigious genre awards and birthing a young-adult spinoff.

Matt Murdock and Myron Bolitar are separated by a generation, as Marvel’s Daredevil series debuted in 1964 and the first Myron Bolitar novel, Deal Breaker, was published in 1995. However, the shared character traits between Matt and Bolitar, as well as the narrative and thematic similarities in their stories, are uncanny.

Matt, a defense attorney, and Myron, a sports agent, were both put on the path to assume their dual identities by traumatic events in their lives. Murdock was blinded while saving someone from getting hit by a truck carrying toxic chemicals, while Bolitar suffered a career-ending knee injury from an intentional hit during his first training camp with Boston Celtics. Both characters rose above these circumstances to graduate prestigious law schools and open their own practices in the New York metro area, and became trained experts in martial arts as a cathartic release (and narrative convenience). The Daredevil persona arose within Matt Murdock due to his father’s murder at the hands of the mob, while Myron Bolitar’s vigilante activities are a series of unhappy accidents when his prized clients are blindsided by scandal.

The supporting casts in both series have near-direct analogues to each other as well, and add key dimensions to the protagonists. Matt Murdock and Myron Bolitar both claim their college roommate as their professional partner, confidante, and best friend. Foggy Nelson, while initial designed as Daredevil’s comic relief, provides a voice of reason and emotional grounding for the melodrama that typically engulfs Matt Murdock. Windsor Horne-Lockwood reflects a more extreme viewpoint in the Bolitar series. Unlike Myron, Win is an old-money playboy who fully embraces the lifestyle of the loner vigilante, acting almost as a walking cautionary tale to his proclivity for violence and complete lack of empathy. Karen Page and Esperanza Diaz round out the “core trio” character setup that both series adopt, and while both function initially in a secretarial role, Karen is damsel in distress for almost the entirely of her existence in the written Daredevil mythos while Esperanza grows into an equal partner for Myron and represents a human connections that Myron steadily loses throughout the series.

Daredevil and the Bolitar novels are heavily steeped in noir conventions. The lives of both central characters are regularly impacted by “femme fatale” characters. The doomed romances with Elektra Natchios (first love/college girlfriend) and Milla Donovan (trauma-prone community activist) are defining moments in Matt Murdock’s 50-year history, and Myron’s involvement with Emily Downing (first love/college girlfriend), and Terese Collins (trauma-prone television anchor) have acted as catalysts to push Myron down increasingly dangerous paths. While both series are set in a “modern” era, organized crime is still alive in both worlds, and Matt’s complex relationship with Wilson Fisk echoes Myron’s ongoing issues with the Ache brothers in many of his novels.

I could easily spend another thousand words describing the oddly specific surface-level similarities between Matt Murdock and Myron Bolitar, but my intent is not to make any insinuations regarding Harlan Coben, one of my literary idols. The basic template for both characters has existed long before either was created, as exemplified by Zorro, the Shadow, and Batman. These characters have uniquely inspired me because the most important traits they share are their unbending morality and endless resilience.

Matt Murdock and Myron Bolitar are both influenced by their religion. Matt’s Catholicism is more overt than Myron’s Judaism due to the more in-your-face nature of comic books, but in each case their faith is deployed to examine the nature of their choices, make the correct decisions, and comfort them in the face of adversity. Religion in both books isn’t works as the evangelical sledgehammer or blanket excuse for discrimination it is in today’s world, but rather a ploughshare for fixing injustice or solving the problems of those in need. While Matt Murdock may have heightened senses, he and Myron are both ordinary men working to the best of their ability and means to heal their worlds.

Matt and Myron’s commitment to their morality frequently forces them into adversity that would easily overcome most people, but they make the hard choices and refuse to yield to their obstacles because that determination is ingrained in their identity. The pain Matt Murdock endures in Frank Miller’s classic story Born Again could occupy six noir novels, the entire premise of the Bolitar novel Promise Me is that Myron made a casual promise to keep his friends’ daughters safe, and he never abandons that promise even when protecting them becomes deadly. I have a tough time making myself floss and finish 20 minutes of yoga a day; reading about these characters leveraging their intelligence and endurance against seemingly insurmountable odds made them strong aspirational figures to me.

One element that I feel can be missing from authors’ work with long-running characters is remembering that their protagonists are role models to their readers. While real-world role models often let their admirers down with unfortunate and even occasionally frightening personal flaws, authors have direct control over their creations. When crafting a new story for characters that carry a deep attachment from their audience, writers should remember how they have defined their characters’ personalities, and not cross those lines unless willing to seriously explore the long-term ramifications of their decisions. When Matt Murdock seriously considers killing a baby in the execrable Guardian Devil by Kevin Smith, or beats Wilson Fisk to death in public in Brian Michael Bendis’ End of Days, the disrespect for established characterization for fans is shocking, and an unfortunate byproduct of a character being owned by a corporation rather than a singular writer. However, when a novelist takes a jarring, ugly turn with a central character, trust with the audience can be severely damaged. Long Lost, the 9th Bolitar novel, took a very dark turn with Myron as he graphically murdered several people while investigating a terrorist cell, which was also a plot that was far outside the character’s traditional realm. This would have been an interesting choice for the character if was extended into future installments of the series, but Myron was essential back to “normal” by the next book, Live Wire. While Live Wire was a solid read as a standalone novel, the events in Long Lost had almost completely broken my immersion in the world that Coben had built.

One of the greatest rewards a writer can attain is creating characters that audiences grow to love, and build an attachment far beyond the typical escape from reality found during reading. While the characters I chose as aspirational icons are largely derivative, the origin and influence is not nearly as important as the lessons these characters can impart to the audience. Authors are also teachers, and should remember their own lessons while building their worlds.

No comments:

Post a Comment